A Clear Mind: The Beauty of Life

26Jul11

In seeking to perpetuate itself, life becomes an ugly affair.  Living creatures deceive, steal from, hurt, and kill one another, in countless ways, in order to survive.

But not everything about life is ugly.  It is great to be alive, in many times and places, for many people and other creatures.  You can see them play, the dogs and cats and sometimes other animals as well; you can guess that they wouldn’t do this if they were miserable.

Sometimes, to be sure, the things that make life rewarding are ugly in themselves.  People are sometimes happiest when they are experiencing predatory success, such as after a good meal, or upon seeing that a competitor is unhappy.  But life can also be beautiful because of experiences that don’t arise from harm to other creatures:  a nice, hot shower, for instance, or a glorious sunset, or the face of someone you love.

People often find that having and raising a child is one of the most beautiful and rewarding things in life.  They sacrifice a great deal — sometimes, their own lives — to help that child survive and thrive.  This is what one would expect:  life perpetuates itself, not only within individual creatures, but also across generations.  From the perspective of a chicken, though, human parents and children celebrate the arrival of another generation of predator, indifferent to all the direct and indirect hurting and killing that the child will do during its life.

The alternative to life and death is the barrenness of nonlife.  To stop giving birth to new generations of predators, human would-be parents of the world could abstain from having children.  Yet that would not solve the problem.  Other living creatures would take up the slack.  The hurting and killing of life and death would go on without human participation.

If, someday, someone invents a weapon capable of eliminating all life from the planet forever, there would remain the question of whether to use it.  Living creatures seem almost unanimously against it; they want to continue to live.  Even if complete annihilation were painless, it would deprive all those creatures of all those life experiences to come.  They seem willing to take the bad with the good.  Evidently they think life is worthwhile on balance.

Or maybe they’re just afraid of the unknown.  If every living creature knew beyond a doubt that a new and better life awaits them after death, maybe they wouldn’t hang on to this life so tightly.  Humans surely wouldn’t.  Why bother?  If this life deals you a bad hand, you fold and wait for a new round to begin.  Or if you decide to stick it out, it’s just for the fun of it, to see how far you can get with what you’ve got.

Unfortunately, we don’t know that there is a good afterlife.  So what might have been a relaxed, amiable game of cards becomes a battle of high-stakes poker.  Worse, the game is rigged.  Eventually you are certain to lose everything.  And as far as we know, once the game is over, you will never have anything again.  There’s always a slight fear — sometimes a great terror — of losing life under these circumstances.  The best you can hope for is a gradual, evasive retreat, somehow holding onto the farm and your shirt for as long as possible.

Life is thus a bit like slavery.  Some in this situation are able to move toward better conditions; some aren’t.  Either way, it may be ugly, and it may require you to do ugly things; but there’s no real alternative, short of suicide.

Life is beautiful in the sense that it contains many great experiences.  They are great because we are able to focus very locally on the pleasant parts.  A full belly makes world hunger much less worrisome.  The prospect that our kids will kill countless creatures is of remote interest; what we really know is that, today, we’re proud of them.  While death is with us always, ready to step out of the shadows in an instant to meet up with us, we are nonetheless usually able to imagine that it remains far away.

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